Former NSA chief warns of Russian cyberattacks against US financial sector

keith alexander
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File
FILE – In this Dec. 11, 2013 file photo, then National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Retired Gen. Keith Alexander, the former National Security Agency chief and head of U.S. Cyber Command, warned Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to unleash cyberattacks against the U.S. financial sector as retaliation for the West’s involvement in its war with Ukraine.

Alexander said Putin has stated that the U.S. was intending to launch cyberattacks against Russian banks following sanctions that crippled the country’s economy. The general said that type of statement, which could not be independently confirmed, could give Putin the power to go after U.S. financial institutions, including in cyberspace. 

“I think he was actually putting it out there because [Russian] banks are having problems more so because of sanctions than anybody attacking them,” Alexander said. 

“[The statement] will also give him the authority to unleash his guys against our financial institutions,” he added. 

Alexander made his remarks during a cyber webinar hosted by IronNet, a cybersecurity firm founded and led by the retired general. Alexander was joined by other panelists who discussed several key issues, including how nation-state threat actors such as Russia will use cyber as a weapon to target banks and other financial institutions. 

Following the invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and Western Europe imposed crippling economic sanctions against Russia, including cutting the country off from roughly $600 billion in reserves held by the Central Bank of Russia, suspending its access to the U.S. dollar and banning the state banks from using SWIFT, a messaging system used by banks to conduct international transactions. 

Alexander predicted that Russia will likely launch cyberattacks against the U.S. financial sector and other key industries to punish the country for its support of Ukraine. 

“I think we’re going to see some of that as we go forward,” Alexander said. “I think it’s going to pick up, and I think it will be meant to be punitive.”

However, four months into the war, it seems that Russia has shown cyber restraint against the U.S. despite several warnings from cyber experts and government officials predicting that Russia would launch destructive cyberattacks, especially following the crippling economic sanctions. 

Those predictions even prompted Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to wonder why the Russians hadn’t unleashed their “cyber arsenal” as many thought they would. 

“I am still relatively amazed that they have not really launched the level of maliciousness that their cyber arsenal includes,” Warner said in March. 

Although those predictions have yet to fully materialize in the U.S. specifically, some experts and policymakers have said that the Russians are likely saving their cyber ammunitions for upcoming U.S. elections, including the 2022 midterms.

The experts said that Russia will likely unleash a range of cyber weapons, including disinformation campaigns and election hacking, in an attempt to meddle in the midterms.

“[Putin] is upset with a bunch of countries, perhaps most of all the United States,” Alexander said.

Tags Keith Alexander Mark Warner

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